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Smithy's Nails

Updated on June 14, 2014

Heat and pressure create the perfect nail

Smithy's Nails

In 1868, Stubs Gallagher, the local Smithy, ran his shop on the main street of Bodie California. It was aptly named Stubs Blacksmith Shop and Saddlery. His name was Peter Gallagher but folks around those parts just called him Stubs on account of his hands. His years of forging red hot metal into horse shoes, nails, hinges, mining tools and harness hardware had taken a toll on them.
His skin was dried and cracked and his hands perpetually swolen. His fingers looked like burnt sausages left on the wood stove for too long. There were chunks of meat actually missing from the fleshy parts of his hands due to an occasional errant blow of his smithy's hammer. He had not once ever had a doctor tend to his injuries. He was older now and hard work, harsh weather and age had taken it's toll. So many years were spent bent over an anvil shaping hot iron and shoeing horses, he couldn't stand full upright even when he tried. Stubs was bent from his labors. He didn't mind though. Told folks, “That's the price you pay for an honest day's work. Sides, God don't much care what I looks like. This ol' bag of nails is jes temporary anyhow.”

In his better days young Stubs could do it all. He didn't hire carpenters or ask the local barn raisers to help build his blacksmith shop. Did it all himself from making the square nails to barking the timbers that held it up with a draw knife he fashioned over the forge before he even had a roof over his head. Occasionally he did enlist the services of Deacon Fred Dressler from the local church to help him lift the timbers he could not manage himself. They became friends over the years and Deacon Dressler was always sendin' folks to Stub's place for harness repairs and their metalwork needs. Course Stubs being Stubs, paid back the deacon's efforts at least double, probably more.

Stub's Work Place and His Magnificent Nails

The old lean to shed had no front to it at all except a hitching rail and some posts. He didn't see the need. “Summers too dangdably hot fer four walls around ya. Specially if ya got that old forge fired up white hot so's ya can do yer work.” he'd say. It was built mostly of hand hewn Dougas fir planks from the Toiyabe Range. The timber was hauled in from over 30 miles away by teams of six horses pulling wagons mostly built by Stubs with a little help from the deacon. And Stubs didn't pay a dime for a single stick. But every stick was paid for. “Them lumberjacks be needin' so much wagon repair and harness hardware, I never could see the need of money. Good thing too cause I never had any. We just did some barterin'. They got what they needed and in exchange for services rendered, I got my wood. Right fine timbers too. They always got me the best ones.” There was some roll down canvas curtains across the front for added protection during Bodie's sub-zero winters. The high winds of the area couldn't shake Stubs Blacksmith and Saddlery. Stubs made the finest nails west of the Mississippi. “Why once a newspaper man from Virginia City even sent over for a bucket of my nails. Not sure of his name. Folks here abouts call him either Samuel Clemmens or Mark Twain dependin' on who yer talkin' to. They all describe the same fella though. Don't know why he'd be needin' two names lessin' he's hiding somethun”.

The Trouble Over Wood

Now wood was real scarce in Bodie. Specially in the winter. Most of the wood that came into town was used for shoring up mines. Huge timbers that were fastened with Stubs square nails and spikes. The smaller stuff was used to build houses, saloons, a fire house and a church or two using Stubs square nails and hand hammered hinges and door latches. But the winters were cold. So cold that folks just up and died sometimes, froze to death in their own homes. There was killin's too. And it wasn't over the gold and silver coming out of the mines, it was over wood needed for heating to survive the bitter winters. A few folks were buried alive in the mines poaching timbers used to shore up the mine shafts. Sure made the funerals easier though. No digging required just plant a cross held together with a couple of Stubs hand made nails. Once in awhile, someone also got lead poisoning tryin' to steal wood. They up and died a little slower sometimes because the doctor could keep them alive for a little while till they bled out. More than once, planks and beams from ol Stubs blacksmith shop were found to be missing, loosened and even cut with a saw or chopped with an axe by someone who needed wood. It seemed a much better option than having a mine cave in on your head.

A Man of Honor and Ethics

The whole idea of folks stealin' and killin' over wood, upset Stubs. He figured he always paid his debts, mostly overpaid them in fact. And if someone had need why he would always do anything he could to help. Why didn't people just ask? He just got sick of replacing planks and beams so he came up with a solution. He began to fashion a new kind of square nail. He'd heat metal red hot in his forge then hammer out the shank and point to the desired shape and size. A quick quench in the water trough made them stiff and hard, less likely to bend. “Course now you know what I did next cause you seen them nails. Ain't no secret anymore but fer a long time I was the only one makin' 'em this way and people came from all over to get them from me. Even sold a few thousand of 'em to Sears & Roebuck Company back east so the city folks could use 'em too. Corkscrew, come 'ere boy and show this nice man how to put our famous 'lock-in-twist' in these here nails.”

Corkscrew, The Young Apprentice

Corkscrew was really Caroll Mitchell, Waddie and Lisa Mitchell's offspring. But what boy wants a name that can be confused with a girls name? When Stubs came up with 'Corkscrew' for the boy, he took to it like a bear to honey. 'Cork' was a big kid, over 6' 2”. He towered over Stubs now bent over body, like a giant Redwood tree in a scrub forest. His arms were as big around as some of the timbers that held up the blacksmith's shop roof. Big and tough as the sandy haired Swede was, Corkscrew never had a harsh word for anyone or anything. He was Stubs apprentice smithy and proud of it. He was pretty good too which was, in no small way, reckoned as a debt he owed Stubs for the trainin' and teachin' he was gettin'. But of course Stubs thought passing his skills and learning along to Corkscrew was not only a nice thing to do, he looked at it as a gift he could freely give that had rewards far greater that the work Corkscrew would one day accomplish. In a tough, hard working sort of way, Stubs and Corkscrew had a bond that went deeper than most.

Anyway, Corkscrew sauntered over to the forge with a buckskin pouch of nails ready for the 'lock-in-twist' to be made on them. He sprinkled a handful around the edges of the forge to prewarm them, then took one in the tongs and heated a Stubs square nail red hot. 'Here goes nuthin' Corkscrew said. He set the first ½' or so of the nail into a slot cut into the blunt end of a small anvil fastened to a tree stump near the forge. No doubt the railroad spikes holding it to the stump were Stubs originals. While it was still red hot, he took a forked piece of metal, hand made for the job, and slipped it over the narrow part of the nail shan and pulled it right up near the top till it was snug. He then gave a gentle half a revolution turn to the top of the nail until just the right amount of twist appeared in the middle of the shank. He could tell when it was right by the little scales of metal that began to appear and cool on the surface of the shank. He pulled it from the slot in the anvil and quenched it in the trough. He immediately set about putting the 'lock-in-twist' into the rest of his first batch of nails. These were by now, the famous Stubs Lock In Twist Nails. They would not pull out easily because they twisted when driven in giving them far greater holding ability. If someone wanted to pull them out, they would have to be pulled and twisted the opposite way at the same time in order to remove them. No more boards were ever loosened on the Stubs Blacksmith Shop and Saddlery because Corkscrew had driven the nails into every single board on the building. And no more attempts were made to saw timbers from the lean to shed either. Stubs had hammered out 2” strips of steel bent at right angles the length of them and Cork had used their hand made nails to nail them to all the posts and timbers that supported the shed.

Always Finish What You Started

It was time to finish the batch of nails. The only thing left to do was peen the head onto them. It was a skill that was so deftly handled by Stubs, you would hardly give it any thought watching him craft it. But Corkscrew? Well that was another matter, at least in his own mind. 'Go ahead Cork, don't leave a job half-done, finish what ya started”. “Ah you go ahead and finish 'em Stubs, you do it betterin' me anyhow. I'll go ahead on and put the twist on the rest of 'em” Cork replied. Stubs barked out “You ain't never gonna' get it right lessin' you keep on trying till ya do. Now get to it boy”.

Corkscrew set a block of metal atop a much larger and heaver anvil than the one he used to twist them in. It was made from four angled flat metal strips that formed a hole that would only let a nail drop to a predetermined depth then stop, leaving just the right amount exposed to peen out the nail head. He went back to the forge with a twisted nail in the tongs and heated the end where the head would be, almost white hot. Quickly dropping it into the holder, he hammered the top of the nail into a low, slightly curved top nail head. He lifted it with the tongs and examined it, clearly not happy with the result. “See Stubs, I just don't get it. I can't get the head centered on the shank of the nail, it's always off to one side”. Patiently Stubs watched Cork make three more attempts to fix the head on that same nail. On the last attempt, Corkscrew just gasped in disgust at his lack of skill in the final finishing of a nail and dropped it to the dirt floor of the shed.

'Hard Knocks', that's a school!

At that moment Stubs had an epiphany. “Cork boy, look at this.” He walked over and picked up Corkscrews malformed nail. It really did not look right at all. The head was off to one side,and not nearly symmetrical with the shank. Stubs reached back to the anvil and grabbed the heavy hammer he used to make gate hinges and the like. “Come here son and learn something.” Corkscrew went over to Stubs not sure what to expect.

Stubs lightly tapped the tip of the nail into one of the old timbers that held up the roof of the blacksmith shop. Cork was standing to the right of the post with his nose barely a foot from the nail, looking down at it just a wonderin' what was going to happen. Suddenly without warning, Stubs took a mighty swing with the heavy forging hammer and with one blow, drove the three inch nail all the way home. When the hammer met the hard old Douglas fir post, it sounded like a shot going off. Dust and debris that had accumulated for years in the rafters above began to fill the air. It was so thick and pungent it was like a smelly fog inside the building. Birds flew from their nests out into the peace and quiet of the out of doors. Young Corkscrew jumped back as if the smithy's blow was aimed directly at him and just stood there aghast. Folks nearby stopped in their tracks at the sound of it and just looked into the shed scared to see what had just happened.

“What you so shook up about boy, come look at this” The passers by just laughed and moved on all seemingly headed in the same direction. As he pointed his blunt, cracked, swollen sausage index finger at the nail now firmly planted in the post, Stubs asked, “What's it look like to you now Cork?” “Well Stubs, I reckon it just looks like a nail” Corkscrew replied. “Well it does at that”, Stubs agreed “but it's more that that, it's a perfect nail, doin' exactly what it was made to do” Cork grinned as much from relief that he was not dead by hammer blow as anything else. Then he grinned because sure enough, it looked just as good as any nail in the entire place.

Lessons Learned

“You see son, Stubs said, there is no such thing as a 'perfect' nail, though the Stubs Gallagher Lock-In-Twist, I reckon comes as close as it gets. No matter how hard we try, we can't never make one that's perfect. That nail reminds me of what Deacon Dressler once told me. He said that “None of us is perfect, meaning you and me or anyone else in these here parts. And we can't make ourselves perfect no matter how hard or how long we try. But it don't matter because we can be made perfect for what whatever purpose we have here in this life.” Deacon says a carpenter who uses the nails is the one who decides if the nail is perfect for it's purpose. And there was this carpenter fella a ways back, a long time ago, who has his purpose for each of us. And just like a carpenter decides if a nail needs to be long and thin, short and heavy in the shank, twisted or not twisted, this other carpenter fella has purposes for each one of us and he makes us perfect for that purpose.His name is Jesus and it took some nails, three I think it was, driven into His hands and feet, driven in just like I did that 'Stubs Lock In Twist Nail', to make us perfect. Just like you now see that nail, perfect as any other nail in this here shop, we are now made perfect by nails driven in that young Jesus feller.”

A Perfect Invitation

As unexpected as it was, Stubs just then looks right in my eyes with a sly grin on his leathery old face and asks, “Why don't you come with us? Cork and me are goin' over to the church to see a man. He'll meet us there about 10:00. He's already seen everything that' goin' on here today and he knows about you. He probably knows more about you than you even know about yerself?”

Corkscrew went over to the horse trough, skimmed off the layer of slag ash, straw, wood chips and bits of birds nest, dunked his head and slicked back his hair. “Yeah mister, why don't you come along, we're gonna go spend a little time with Jesus. If He can make Stubs and me perfect like that nail, he can probably do the same fer you a lot easier than us, and you don't hafta take any nails at all, Stubs Lock In Twist or any other kind.” So just to be neighborly, and thankful for them givin' me some of their time and a short lesson on Smithy nail making, I conceded as how it might do me some good and went along.

A Humble Legacy

Of course now, ten or so years after the fact, we done buried Pete Gallagher in the town cemetery. Me and Corkscrew built him a right fine Douglas fir casket with Cork's hand made fixtures and the last of the Stubs Lock-In-Twist nails that the ol Stubs had made hisself. He had saved back a couple dozen for just such an occasion. They were all imperfect just like Stubs and you and me. But just like you and me, at the hands of the carpenter, they were perfect for their intended purpose.

Cork still runs the Stubs Blacksmith and Saddlery with all the skill and expertise that Stubs had taught him. If it weren't for the fact that he was so big and tall, you would think you were watching ol Stubs himself at the forge and the anvil. A new sign now graces the eve of the shed. It reads Stubs & Son Blacksmith and Saddlery. Me and Deacon Dressler hung it up after services one Sunday afternoon soon as we swept out the church building.

© scott adie 2014

Bodie Ghost Town as it appears today.
Bodie Ghost Town as it appears today. | Source
The Bodie Church where Deacon Dressler, Stubs, Cork and their new friend worshipped on Sundays
The Bodie Church where Deacon Dressler, Stubs, Cork and their new friend worshipped on Sundays | Source
Stubs made hardware for everything. This is a lift handle for a cutoff saw.
Stubs made hardware for everything. This is a lift handle for a cutoff saw. | Source
A single-axle cart in Stubs & Son's Blacksmith and Saddlery.
A single-axle cart in Stubs & Son's Blacksmith and Saddlery. | Source
Stubs hand fashioned twisted nail and one of Cork's malformed square nails.
Stubs hand fashioned twisted nail and one of Cork's malformed square nails. | Source

Bodie Road CA Rte 270, heading to Bodie Ghost Town


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    • sradie profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Palm Coast FL

      Thanks Homeplace Series for taking a little time to read my story. I will return the favor by checking out your posts. As with most fictional stories, there is always some truth and some fiction within. I hope you will continue to take a look at my work. THanks again.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      We have a common interest in blacksmithing. Thanks for a great story. My daughter has visited Bode multiple times. Loves the area. ;-)

    • sradie profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Palm Coast FL

      Thanks for taking the time to read it Aaron. It is a work of pure fiction based in some of my personal realities and experiences. Stubs and Corkscrew are fictitious characters but the most fun part of writing this was developing their characters. Deacon Fred Dressler is real though he is not a deacon, he is a Nevada rancher. Waddie and Lise Mitchell are real Nevada ranchers too. The have a place in the Ruby Mountains and Waddie is a cowboy poet. I am on page 10 of a new one that runs in an entirely different vein. I hope to post it soon.

    • Abrushing1968 profile image

      Aaron Rushing 

      4 years ago from USA- Florida

      Scott. What a wonderful story. For me, these are the hardest stories to write because it requires a working knowledge of the subject matter. You told this story as if you had been a smithy or at least made a few of those nails yourself. It was easy to imagine corkscrew making the nails. I love the the moral of the story. Imperfect people made perfect for thier task. Excelent. Now is this a true story or did you make it up? was Stubs and Corkscrew real people?

      I hope you are able to find a magazine to publish this. It is just that good.

      God Bless



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